Writing for Blogs

23 07 2004

A reader named ‘Tammi’ posed a comment to the cross-post of ‘Sgt Missick’s Rebuttal’ that nicely phrases some real concern about the whole idea of ‘reviewing’ blogs and asks what criteria I use. Because I think her questions probably reflect a fairly general attitude toward writing blogs, specifically, I thought this was the appropriate place to answer them. I’m not going to reprint her whole comment, but I’d like to suggest you click the link above and read it for yourself before you read the rest of my reply. It’s thought-provoking, and well worth reading for its own sake.

Here’s my issue – and please, if I’m off base I will apologize up front. This has nothing to do with politics, religion or anything. It’s actually just a question.

You’re not off-base at all. They’re perfectly legitimate questions and you have a right to know the answers. In fact, I figured when I started LitBlogs that at some point I needed to lay out what the criteria were so people knew where I was coming from and could judge whether or not my opinions had any relevancy for them. Your comment gives me the opportunity to do that.

And I want to state again for the record that my reviews have nothing whatever to do with politics or religion, either, except in so far as the blogs themselves deal with it, and then my concern is how well they express themselves, not how ‘correct’ their positions are. The purpose of the reviews is to give people some idea where to go and what they’ll find when they get there. Finally, what I pick is what I like. Fortunately, I like a lot of different things for a lot of different reasons, so my choices tend to range along a fairly wide spectrum.

When reviewing a blog what are your criterias?

It depends on where I’m reviewing them. For Omnium: How well do they communicate what they’re trying to say? Are they informative or just re-hashing the same old stuff? How original are they? What’s the quality of the thought they express? How well-written are they, if writing is an issue? (It isn’t always; a lot of blogs are information-spreaders, and mostly what they publish are links and quotes with very little writing by the blogger.) Who is the intended audience? A blog written for friends and/or family is a very different matter from a blog intended for public reading and response. I don’t review the former unless it’s so good it would be of interest to outsiders as well.

For LitBlogs: How well written is it?

That’s pretty much it. I began LitBlogs because I realized there was some marvelous writing going on in blogs that was going largely unnoticed and I wanted a site dedicated to finding them and turning readers onto the ones they didn’t already know about. So my criterium boils down to that: if it’s written well, that accomplishment should be acknowledged. That’s all LitBlogs is intended to do.

The next logical question is: ‘Well, what’s your criteria for good writing?’ I’ll let Tammi define it because she said it better than I could.

I don’t have to state my thesis clearly and then show footnotes or a bibliography. It’s what’s in MY mind, in My heart said My way.

Exactly. Tammi seems concerned that I’m coming at this like a strict grammarian or a professorial technician. I’m not. Tammi, read my review of My War. My criteria for good writing is laid out right in the first paragraph.

His grammar isn’t great, his spelling is OK, his punctuation is horrible. All of that is beside the point. Like Emmett, he can communicate a sense of time and place so clearly that it’s almost physical–you can hear it, you can see it, you can almost reach out and touch it.

That’s half of my criteria in a nutshell. The other half has to do with what you’re saying: Is the blogger being honest with us? Do they write with passion and heart? Or are they hiding behind cliches and institutional language? Are they telling us what they feel and/or think directly ? Or are they putting up walls of words that don’t mean very much?

William Faulkner, as I was reminded recently, said in his Nobel Prize speech that the only subject worth the sweat and pain of writing about it was the human heart. That’s my criteria, too.

Have you looked at the situations in the which the blogger is creating?

As I said in the advice post:

I know you have other and better things to do, and for all I know you’re blogging on your laptop for the few moments a day that you’re not being shot at. This advice is only for those who would like to and/or are able to blog to a larger purpose…

I acknowledge it but ultimately it’s irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are that produced the result, only the result. If it works, it works, if not, not. As I’ve already said, the reviews aren’t generally intended to trash anybody, and they’re certainly not meant to set up some stone wall of grammatical or format ‘acceptibility’. I said quite clearly I don’t give a damn about the first and I will add now that I revel in the diversity of the second–I love originality and difference; I love people who risk doing things their own way. Whether it works or not is a separate question.

Is there a list of dos and don’ts out there they we need to be aware of?

A lot of what I said in the advice post–more than I originally thought–is good general advice for other bloggers as well, especially the bits about writing what’s in front of you and daring to be honest. Carrying a notebook is a good idea for all writers, so are writing as much as you can, and deciding who it is you’re writing for. But the answer to your real question–which is to say, the one I think you meant to ask–is ‘not really’. The rule of good writing is simple: if it makes the reader feel something, if it’s honest about what it’s trying to convey, if it calls more attention to the people or events or story it’s telling than it does to itself, then it’s good writing whether it follows ‘rules’ or not.

Sloganeering is a cop-out; it’s dishonest; it’s hiding behind cliches to avoid having to say what you really mean, or do the work to discover what that is. My point with Chris was that it weakens his voice and his case, and that he’s good enough that he doesn’t need it. I hope he understands that.

The reason I ask this is simple. I blog. I love to read them I love to write them. But one of the things I love best is that there are NO RULES.

Blogs may not have set formats and grammatical rules everybody is expected to follow like in your graduate thesis, and thank god for that (some of the worst writing I have ever seen in my entire life outside the works of Jackie Collins has been in graduate theses; horrible horrible!) but writing still has rules, and they are the ones I gave above and the one Faulkner gave 50 years ago: It has to tell some truth about the human heart or it’s just literary masturbation.




2 responses

25 07 2004

This was quite interesting and helpful to me. I am new at blogging. The first one that I ever saw was topic specific. It is devoted to the art of making shuttle lace, Threads of a Tatting Goddess. It is very well done. I somehow found myself appointed the Poetry Director at SplashHall, a poetry board on-line and now writing articles for a group blog for poets called Rollin Thunder. I was very anxious about posting there and now I am not sure about doing it at all. I will have to study your advice for blogging. Thank you for helping.

25 07 2004

I don’t know how appropriate what I said might be for the kind of writing it sounds like you’ll be doing, except for this: write from the heart, judge from the heart. I’m not a poet. I only read it occasionally and I judge it strictly by what it says to me, not by the quality of the rhyme or the cleverness of the meter. I love Anne Sexton and Dylan Thomas and Whitman and ee cummings and Kenneth Paxton and some of Robert Lowell. I tolerate Frost and Kerouac and Ferlinghetti and some of Updike. Keats, Yeats, Coleridge and the rest of that crowd give me a headache. I avoid most modern poets like the plague–their issues and their reach are too small, too preciously interior for my taste. I like poetry where the inside and the outside meet and exchange viewpoints.

All of which is to say I’m hopelessly outdated and out of my element. I wouldn’t know what to tell you except I hope nothing I said is giving you second thoughts about doing it. As a medium, blogs are remarkably forgiving–a good place to learn on because they’re like newspapers: here today, birdcage liner tomorrow. You can make mistakes and you don’t have to live with them for them for the rest of your life, just until they disappear off the page and into the archives where it’s unlikely anyone will ever see them again.

In the end, all we can do is trust our education, our experience, and our good sense that what we like is also good in its own right. You need to be a little bit ruthless about opening your own taste as a template, and honest about the fact that it is your taste and other people won’t always react the same way you do. Poetry, it seems to me, is the most personal art form there is, except maybe for music. Some of it has rules and some of it doesn’t, but all of it is highly individualized emotional speculation that must be holy hell to judge or even put into perspective against other work. I wouldn’t know where to start.

So good luck. I know both sites (they’ll be on the blogroll soon, probably today) and I’ll probably be tracking them for this one, so pretty soon I expect I’ll be learning from you.

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